In the last few months, Bollywood has shown that it is creating more legroom for female characters to move into uncharted territories without labelling the films heroine-oriented.

“Queen’ doesn’t need a Women’s Day release. It could release on men’s day, children’s day or any other day for that matter,” says Vikas Bahl. Bahl’s confidence is neither singular nor misplaced. In the last few weeks we have seen female characters coming out of the shadows of their male counterparts without shouting from the rooftops. We have seen that directors need not make ‘heroine-oriented’ “Ghar Dwar” or “Khoon Bhari Maang” to attract the female audience or mount “A Dirty Picture” to lure a voyeur in the name of celebrating freedom of womanhood. It is not even “Kahaani”, where the love angle is not at the vortex of the narrative.

In “Hasee Toh Phasee”, a romantic comedy, we have a scientist with proper career plans taking on the conservative family and falling in love with a handsome guy who understands her concerns and priorities. Parineeti Chopra does almost everything that we expect from the hero of a mainstream film. Also, she is no “Biwi Ho Toh Aisi” and Siddharth Malhotra is no Farooq Sheikh supporting a bigger star.

In “Highway”, a dark secret wrapped with the ingredients of a mainstream Bollywood film, the protagonist Veera suffers from Stockholm Syndrome but tells her captor Mahavir clearly that she doesn’t want to have kids or get married to him. In “Queen”, again a light-hearted film, a middle class Delhi girl goes on her honeymoon alone. “Our mainstream films have conditioned us to a set plan but life doesn’t always work according to a plan. Along the way she grapples with the idea of right and wrong that has been shoved down her throat as tradition, and in the process many boxes get opened,” says Bahl, who also co-produced “Hasee Toh Phasee”. The film almost breaks the age-old cliché that if a girl smiles she is as good as snared. Earlier this year, in “Dedh Ishqiya”, the big reveal centred on the two women who were in a homoerotic relationship. That the director didn’t come out openly and let the shadows do the talking is a matter of taste and craft, but the fact that the big boys in the film went empty-handed is an interesting twist in a Bollywood tale. Similarly, you can’t ignore the presence of solid female characters in “Ram-Leela”, one of the biggest hits of last year.

Of course, there is “Gulab Gang” in the offing which seems to be pandering to the need for good old melodrama, but there again, in a departure from the past, the villain is also an independent woman. Even in tripe like “Gori Tere Pyaar Mein”, we have a scene where Imran Khan points to a grey strand of hair of Kareena Kapoor and she retorts that she doesn’t mind it as her focus is on her job — making a bridge in a village.

“I haven’t made ‘Highway’ to promote the cause of female characters in mainstream cinema. I just wanted Veera to live and breathe and say something relevant during the course of the film,” says Imtiaz.

Like his character, who would rather be stupid than sensible, Imtiaz kept his characters rooted. “I didn’t want to soft-pedal the conflict. I felt if we keep it real the situation will get more dramatic,” says Imtiaz, adding he was always confident that a country which has texts like Ramayana, Mahabharat and Gita should understand the subtleties in a piece of fiction. “It depends on how well you make it. I feel that if you are bringing something unusual to the table you should be good enough to take it to the masses. I don’t see cinema as a medium for selective and niche viewing.” Bahl chips in, “There should not be blanket rule that this is a mainstream film so female characters will behave in this way and this is a Shyam Benegal film so they will behave differently. In Busan International Film Festival, Korean girls could relate with Rani.”

Comparing the whiff of change with the set patterns of the ’80s and ’90s, Deepa Sahi, who was considered an exception in those days, finds the complexity in “Highway” refreshing. “What I find heartening is you no longer need a drunken husband or an exploitative boyfriend for a girl to rebel. There is an increasing space to let her pursue and struggle with her desires, and the desire need not be physical.”

Mahesh Bhatt, who has tried to break the stereotypes of female characters in his avatar as a filmmaker, says, The good thing, he says, is that the ultimate aim of the female character is no longer marriage. “It is not her cinematic Kaaba anymore.”

“When the girl breaks a taboo it doesn’t come with a strident background sound and these films are not being marketed as heroine-oriented,” he notes. “Like in ‘Highway’, when the girl asks why her parents didn’t tell her that she needs to protect herself from the men inside her home as well, it is a rebellion but it doesn’t come with a capital R,” he adds. The consistency in the tone of these films suggests that for youth — and this includes actors as well — gender equality is not something aspirational but is becoming a part of everyday life. “Alia is only 21 and Veera is also of the same age,” Bhatt reminds us that she is not waiting to get mature to play complex characters. Similarly, Bahl points out that Siddharth and Rajkumar (male lead in “Queen”) have been able to see the bigger picture.

Many call it a multiplex phenomenon, but Bhatt feels the idea is percolating down the pyramid. “When we were shooting for ‘Citylights’ recently in Lower Parel, the slum women came and asked what will happen to Arohi (central character of ‘Aashiqui 2’). Will she get into a relationship or not.” Now, Arohi doesn’t get into the Meena Kumari mould of “Sahib Biwi Aur Ghulam” to get her boyfriend out of the alcoholic mess. “She sings in a bar but that doesn’t mean she has compromised on her values. She loves the boy and is ready to sacrifice her career for him but she also has the courage to call him a coward.”

The audience, says Bahl, was always ready. “It is just that these characters were not considered cinema friendly.” We always needed a Sita if the heroine were to play Gita. Agrees Sahi, “When we were making ‘Maya Memsaab’, we thought it is too offbeat an idea but when the film released we were surprised by the response.”

Imtiaz, who is on a tour to gauge the response in smaller centres, claims “Highway” has already returned the money of the investors. “It gives me the creative satisfaction that you can reach out to the audience without diluting the content.”

Bhatt sums up, “When I made ‘Arth’, it had to wait in the cans for a year and I had to deliver a hit in between to get it released, but it surprised the distributors. Our cinema is very resistant to change and it is heartening some walls are breaking.”